Why you should care
Because nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been raped in their lifetime.
If you’re a woman, you can probably relate. You hit the bar, makeup on fleek and dressed to slay. You have no plans to hook up, just to enjoy a fun night out with your girlfriends — looking fine all the while — and yet despite clear signals that you’re not interested, you spend much of the night trying to fend off guys who can’t take a hint.
Research confirms what many women already know: A woman’s appearance doesn’t necessarily translate to how attracted she is to a guy — and seeing interest where it may not exist can lead to sexual assault. But here’s the good news suggested by a recent study: By shifting their focus from a woman’s appearance to emotional cues,
men can be trained to gauge sexual interest more accurately.
Study lead Teresa Treat, of the University of Iowa, had earlier found that men who are more apt to be sexually coercive and aggressive rely more on physical attractiveness and less on emotional cues, like body language, when judging women’s sexual interest in them. “This suggests there’s a confusion about what a man is feeling himself and what a woman appears to be communicating,” Treat says. She and her colleagues want to develop methods that improve men’s accuracy in judging how women feel about them in a given moment.
To that end, the researchers showed 220 male and 276 female college students 130 full-body photos of women and asked them to rate the women’s sexual interest, from “extremely rejecting” to “extremely sexually interested.” Half of the students were instructed to focus on the women’s emotional cues, such as facial expression and body language, and ignore their physical attractiveness and clothing style. Next, the study participants noted how much the women’s attractiveness, clothing style and emotional cues had influenced their ratings. They also completed an assessment of their attitudes toward rape, indicating how much they agreed, for instance, that rape happens when a man loses control of his sex drive.
Overall, male and female students rated sexual interest similarly, but women relied more than men on emotional cues. Male participants focused more than female ones on attractiveness — consistent with findings by Southwestern University’s Carin Perilloux and others that the more attractive a woman is, the more likely men will overestimate her interest in them. Perilloux explains that men could be projecting their own sexual interest, reasoning, “I’m interested in her, so she might be interested in me.”
Students who received written instructions relied more on emotional cues and less on appearance-based ones than those who didn’t receive written instructions. Those who had “rape-supportive” attitudes (i.e., tending to minimize or justify sexual aggression) relied more heavily on attractiveness and clothing style — but participants who received written instructions relied on these characteristics less than those who didn’t receive them.
To be sure, “there’s no indication that this would translate to a real-world context,” Perilloux says. Also, “we don’t know what this means in terms of long-term effects. Is it just limited to this one task?” Treat acknowledges these caveats in her paper, noting the importance for future studies to more closely mimic the real world. Also, while Treat’s study focuses on men’s potential sexual aggression toward women, it’s not meant to discount sexual aggression of women toward men or in same-sex interactions. Still, Perilloux notes that the study’s findings are significant: “The more cues we can identify … the better.”
Treat and her colleagues have begun developing a more comprehensive training program, one that integrates both instructional information and expert feedback. They also plan to investigate whether or not men would still apply what they’ve learned from the program after consuming a few alcoholic drinks.
What’s the takeaway in the meantime? If you’re a dude, pay attention to the right cues. “The way a woman happens to be dressed at the bar has no relation to her interest in you per se,” Perilloux says. How should you gauge if she is interested? Try asking. “One of the best things to do is check with your partner or potential partner with how she’s feeling rather than just making assumptions,” Treat says.
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